by Peter Mires
“My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills.” –Sweet Promised Land (1957)
To many Americans, Nevada is a place of decadence and diversion. Considered shameful vices in much of the rest of the country, gambling and prostitution have been part and parcel of the Silver State since the mining boom days of the nineteenth century. Even the wholesome 1960s television show Bonanza portrayed the dichotomous morality of Virginia City and its environs. The current slogan marketing Las Vegas’s casino culture – “What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas” – perpetuates the concept that Nevada is different and just a little sinful. When I moved to Reno in 1991, I did so mindful of the state’s reputation, but Robert Laxalt changed all that.
I’ve long embraced the correlation between literature and geography, and one of the first things that I do when heading to a new destination is to read. Although I like to form my own opinions, seeing the world through the eyes of others, I’ve found, enriches my personal sense of place by adding detail to my mental map. I can’t imagine driving through Dorset, for example, without Thomas Hardy as my guide. In fact, there are places where it’s nearly impossible to avoid the literary landscape. When I lived in Louisiana I had a whole host of Southern writers from which to choose. But who writes about Nevada?
I was vaguely aware that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) began his literary career as a cub reporter at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, and that his autobiographical book Roughing It describes the frenzy that was pre-statehood Nevada. Were there more contemporary authors to tell me about this place that would become my home for six years? Yes. I discovered Robert Laxalt. One of the first books that I bought was his history of the state, and the circumstance of its purchase was memorable.
I heard about a University of Nevada Press book fair to be held in one of Reno’s many casinos (however incongruous that may sound) and thought that this would be a good place to start. As I circulated among the tables spread with books in the casino’s elegant chandelier-lit salon, I eventually found my way to the section where authors were signing their books and exchanging brief pleasantries with enthusiastic readers. One table in particular drew a crowd, so naturally I stood in line to meet the person who was evidently the star attraction of the event. Robert Laxalt struck me as a shy yet confident man, and as I made my choice among his many books I explained that I had just moved here and was eager to learn more about the place. He inscribed my book “Ongi etorri [Welcome] to our land of Nevada,” using a deliberate combination of Basque and English.
Robert Laxalt (1923-2001) is best known for his book Sweet Promised Land (1957), a moving story about accompanying his father on a trip to his natal Basque country. It concludes with his father’s realization that he had become an American, and is considered a classic in the literature on the immigrant experience in America. Robert Laxalt’s parents emigrated to the Western United States from a Basque province of the French Pyrenees, and, like many of his compatriots, Dominique Laxalt made a living as a sheepherder in the mountains of western Nevada and eastern California. His mother, Theresa, kept the home fires burning while operating a boarding house in Carson City, which became the subject of another wonderful book, The Basque Hotel (1989).
The author credits his mother for launching a distinguished literary career. One day she brought home a typewriter for her children to use to write their school papers. Robert latched onto it immediately; he had found his medium, as he explains in his last book Travels with My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life (2001). He also credits his “second home,” the Nevada State Library in Carson City, for giving him access to a world full of books. After graduating in 1947 with a B.A. in English from the University of Nevada, he worked as a journalist for two local newspapers, formed the Capital News Service, and became the Nevada correspondent for United Press International (UPI), the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He also wrote numerous articles for National Geographic. His appointment in 1954 as Director of News and Publications for the University of Nevada, Reno, a position held until 1983, proved significant for both the university and for the world of publishing; he founded and served as the first director of the University of Nevada Press. In 1988, he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
Nevadans know Robert Laxalt as the literary brother of governor and U.S. senator Paul Laxalt. Like Samuel Clemens, whose brother Orion Clemens served as Nevada Territorial Secretary in the early 1860s, and whose house remains a Carson City landmark, writing and politics make for an interesting combination. The so-called Basque trilogy about the Laxalt family, which begins with the aforementioned The Basque Hotel and includes Child of the Holy Ghost (1992), concludes with The Governor’s Mansion (1994), a nominally fictional account of the 1966 gubernatorial race. Although Robert Laxalt worked on his brother’s campaigns, he shared Mark Twain’s distaste of politics and those who try to project a larger-than-life image.
Nevada’s Laxalt family is one of those rags-to-riches stories, but it’s not about the wealth. One could look at the number of Laxalt doctors and lawyers, of which there are now many, and conclude that they had successfully assimilated into American society. Not to diminish the accomplishments of an immigrant family whose first home was a dirt-floored cabin in the Sierra only to occupy the Governor’s Mansion within a generation, their true wealth, as Robert Laxalt well knew, was that they had found a place to call home. Robert Laxalt’s affection for Nevada and for the Basque people who moved to this brave new world permeates his work, both literary and otherwise. In addition to being an authority on Basque culture in the West and producing an impressive body of literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, he educated his fellow Nevadans and others about the Basque people who are such an integral part of the state’s cultural mosaic. Thanks largely to the efforts of Robert Laxalt, the University of Nevada, Reno is home to the internationally acclaimed Basque Studies Program. The press that he started regularly publishes titles pertaining to Basque culture. A monument to Basque sheepherders of the American West watches over the bright lights of Reno from the hills of Rancho San Rafael Park north of the city. In the summertime, colorful Basque festivals featuring traditional folk music and dance, feats of strength and agility, and, of course, lots of food and “botas” of wine, are popular events in places like Reno, Winnemucca, and Elko. In recognition of his decades of devotion to the Basque people, the city of San Sebastian (in the Spanish portion of Basque country) presented Robert Laxalt with the Tambor de Oro award in 1986, something that meant more to him than book royalties or rave reviews.
If you’re planning a trip to Nevada and you’d like an alternative to the contrived environment of the casino scene, with its myriad flashing mirrors and cacophony of paying slots, you may want to consider exploring Robert Laxalt’s Nevada. That’s not to say that Mr. Laxalt was opposed to the state’s gaming industry; he wasn’t. One of his best friends was a successful casino entrepreneur and fellow Basque, John Ascuaga, whose high-rise “Nugget” dominates the skyline east of Reno. It’s just that there’s another Nevada out there beyond the “action.”
Robert Laxalt’s Nevada includes the small towns that smell of sage, the convivial cuisine of a Basque restaurant, and the ponderosa pine-clad slopes surrounding Lake Tahoe. He would recommend that you read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s City of Trembling Leaves (1945) then stroll through the quiet older neighborhoods of Reno, or take a horseback ride up into the Sierra and be sure to inspect the old aspens for carvings left by lonely sheepherders years ago. You’ll discover, as I did, that Nevada is much more than a place of instant weddings and winnings; it’s a great place to call home. Robert Laxalt’s Nevada is also Carson City, which for the better part of the twentieth century reveled in its reputation as the least-populated state capital in the country (a distinction currently held by Montpelier, Vermont). Although Carson was just a whistle stop along the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, it did contain the famous Carson City Mint, the Governor’s Mansion with the Orion Clemens house a few blocks away, and for a while in the 1920s and 1930s a boarding house called the French Hotel. I later moved to Robert Laxalt’s hometown to discover its charm, and like the author of the Basque trilogy, I also frequented a place rarely visited by tourists to Nevada: the state library.
University of Nevada Press
Peter Mires holds a Ph.D. in geography and writes from his home in Laurel, Delaware.